Most stem cell therapies are not approved in the US, causing many Americans to travel abroad for treatment.
Autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis: they are all incurable diseases. But there is one treatment that may offer hope to patients with such conditions - autologous stem cell transplantation. In the US, however, this procedure is only used to treat patients with blood-forming disorders and some cancers, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, meaning many Americans are traveling far and wide to countries where it is approved for their condition.
One such place is World Stem Cells Clinic in Cancun, Mexico, where Americans and Canadians account for around 70-75% of all patients treated.
The clinic offers autologous stem cell transplantation for the treatment of numerous conditions, including autism, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and multiple sclerosis (MS).
Autologous stem cell transplantation uses the patient's own stem cells, which are cells that are capable of developing into many other types.
In autologous stem cell transplantation, the cells are harvested from the patient's own blood or bone marrow and are re-introduced at a later date. The treatment aims to kick-start the immune system, ridding the body of harmful cells.
Dr. Ernesto Gutiérrez, president and medical director of the World Stem Cells Clinic, spoke to MNT about the results his clinic has seen with autologous stem cell transplantation - particularly for autism - and discussed whether Americans are missing out on this treatment as a result of FDA regulations.
Autism: 'patients have improved after stem cell therapy'
Dr. Gutiérrez says autism is by far the most common condition treated at World Stem Cells Clinic. This is likely to come as no surprise; rates of autism have risen rapidly in recent years, increasing by 6-15% annually in the US alone between 2002-2010, and treatment options for the condition are limited.
Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by social impairment, communication difficulties and learning and behavioral problems. It currently affects around 1 in 68 children in the US, primarily boys.
At present, there are no treatments that can help tackle the core symptoms of autism; current behavioral and communication therapies - such as speech or occupational therapy - and medications may help children with autism to function better.
But according to Dr. Gutiérrez, the stem cell treatment provided by World Stem Cells Clinic has "consistently" led to improvements for children with autism.
The autism stem cell treatment the clinic provides spans over 5 days, costing around $17,000. The price includes accommodation and transportation for the patient and their family members throughout their entire stay.
How does the treatment work?
Explaining how the treatment works, Dr. Gutiérrez told us: "We harvest the stem cells, then we infuse them into the CNS [central nervous system] via lumbar puncture and IV [intravenous], and we address different areas that are expected in patients with autism. We also provide early stimulation, which allows us to kick start brain plasticity again."
Dr. Gutiérrez is keen to stress that each and every patient is closely monitored after treatment.
"We don't just provide treatment and send them on their way and never hear from them. We stay in touch, we like to work with their physicians whenever they want to get involved, and we promote patients to start doing a lot of activities; it is very important to start challenging these kids neurologically."
Patient outcomes after treatment are measured with an objective test that draws on information provided by the child's parents and other individuals who are in contact with the patient.
Common outcomes seen after treatment include overall improvements in behavior, improved eye contact and attention span, better communication and improvements in concentration and social interaction.
According to Dr. Gutiérrez, the treatment has been such a success that it has received a great deal of interest from the autism community, which may help to expand the treatment elsewhere:
"A lot of parents are very happy they're coming, we're increasing our numbers and we're working together with different organizations and clients within the autism industry, because our goal is to generate even more data, gather more information and make this available so it can be offered in different areas."
Other stem cell treatment successes...and failures
It is not only patients with autism that may benefit from autologous stem cell transplantation, says Dr. Gutiérrez.
He told MNT that patients with COPD - a progressive lung disease - have seen success after stem cell therapy at his clinic, with patients seeing improvements in chest tightness, breathing, wheezing and overall quality of life.
Dr. Gutiérrez said he has seen a 90-95% success rate with stem cell therapy for patients with COPD.
He noted that stem cell treatment is more successful for some conditions than others, however.
"Through our process, we have had some complications - for instance, with MS - where patients have not improved as much as expected, and in those cases, that's where there may be a second treatment - if we thought that would make a difference. If we thought that it wouldn't make a difference, then there's no point in treating them again."
And while some studies have suggested that stem cell therapy may be effective for the treatment of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, Dr. Gutiérrez says the type of treatment they offer is ineffective against the condition.
"ALS makes absolutely no sense to treat with the stem cell treatment that we provide; patients with the condition don't really see any improvement," he told us.
He pointed out that because the clinic's selection criteria is so stringent, however, they do not witness treatment failures very often. "We're not just going to accept patients who are just good on paper. [...] we need to make sure that there is a significant chance of improvement - we don't want to just gamble."
On the next page, we look at why most stem cell therapies are unavailable in the US and what to watch out for when opting for stem cell treatment abroad.